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Source: maradon 333/Shutterstock

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the United States, and around the world. In America, one in four people die of heart disease each year. For American men, more than half of all deaths are the result of CVD.

Chronic stress leads to poor blood vessel health, which triggers a chain reaction that increases someone’s risk of CVD and subsequently having a heart attack or stroke. The good news is: there's growing evidence that aerobic exercise can help reduce your risk of CVD by simultaneously lowering your stress levels and maintaining healthier blood vessels.

A new study reports that aerobic exercise kept the blood vessels of chronically stressed-out rats healthier, and may do the same for humans. The findings were presented this week at the Experimental Biology 2016 meeting in San Diego by Kent Lemaster, graduate student at West Virginia University, in a lecture, "Reversing the Effects of Chronic Stress on the Aorta with Exercise Training.”

Chronic Stress Stiffens Blood Vessels . . . Exercise Relaxes Them

As Lemaster explains, when someone is under chronic stress, he or she tends to have increased aortic stiffness. This stiffness is a strong, independent risk factor for CVD. More specifically, chronic stress is associated with a decreased capacity for endothelium­ dependent, nitric oxide (NO) ­induced vasorelaxation. The lack of vasorelaxation contributes to aortic stiffness and increased afterload pressure on the heart.

However, the blood vessels of stressed rats that exercised regularly became less stiff, and more relaxed, due to stimulation via aerobic blood flow than the blood vessels of stressed rats who didn’t exercise. This caused the rats who exercised regularly to have significantly better cardiovascular health than their sedentary peers.

Although this was an animal study, the researchers believe these findings suggest aerobic exercise may be an important therapy for promoting cardiovascular health in chronically stressed individuals.

The researchers hypothesize that regular aerobic exercise improves endothelium­ dependent relaxation in humans in similar ways that were observed in their animal experiment. Therefore, they encourage medical professionals to consider aerobic exercise as a way to improve both endothelial functioning and cardiovascular outcomes for chronically stressed patients.

Brain Imaging Links Amygdala Activity to Heart Attack Risk

Naeblys/Shutterstock
Source: Naeblys/Shutterstock

This study by Lemaster et al. dovetails perfectly with other research presented this week by researchers from Harvard Medical School. Doctors at Harvard have discovered that individuals with elevated levels of activity in a stress and fear center of the brain (the amygdala) also have greater inflammation in their arteries and are at higher risk for cardiovascular events, including heart attack and stroke.

This Harvard study, "Greater Activity of the Brain's Emotional Stress Center Associates With Arterial Inflammation and Predicts Subsequent CVD Events," was presented in April 2016 at the American College of Cardiology's 65th Annual Scientific Session in Chicago.

Although the amygdala is a complex brain region with a wide range of functions, for simplicity’s sake, the researchers define it as “the stress and fear center of the brain.” This is the first study to use neuroimaging to illustrate a potential association between elevated biochemical activity in a specific brain region and arterial inflammation.

Conclusions: Aerobic Exercise May Reverse the Effects of Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is associated with poor blood vessel health and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular events. The latest research demonstrates that aerobic exercise keeps blood vessels working normally and may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. 

If you are constantly stressed out, aerobic exercise is an inexpensive and highly effective way to promote healthier blood vessels and lower your risk of CVD, which is the leading cause of death in the United States and around the globe. Hopefully, these new findings will motivate you to be more physically active and help you to minimize stress throughout your lifespan. 

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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